Senate Finance Hearing: Too Down on Group, Too Rosy on Foster Parents

On May 19, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing entitled “No Place to Grow Up: How to Safely Reduce Reliance on Foster Care Group Homes.” The hearing was designed to demonstrate that too many foster kids are being placed in group homes for too long.

This appears to be an issue on which there is agreement from both sides of the aisle, uniting liberal sensitivities against “restrictive settings” with conservative desires to save money.

As a former foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I found that the hearing failed to draw some crucial distinctions. First, residential care is not a placement but an intervention. Nobody believes that young people should be placed in institutions instead of in families. However, some young people need more intensive treatment before they can thrive in a family foster home. Without such treatment, these children often bounce from home to home until they end up pregnant or in the juvenile justice system.

One of my young clients – I’ll call him Quentin for the sake of anonymity – was in a truck which his mother repeatedly drove over her abusive husband, killing him. Quentin went through a series of foster homes, being kicked out of each one until he was finally arrested for car theft at the age of 14 and placed in a juvenile justice facility.

Upon release, he was placed in one of his previous foster homes, and that lasted just three months. Quentin had been skipping school, stealing his foster parent’s liquor and belongings, and smoking marijuana in the home. A psychological evaluation recommended a therapeutic group home to provide the structure and supervision Quentin needed.

But D.C.’s child welfare agency refused to provide a group home placement. We placed Quentin with the only foster parent available: a single parent who treated him as a boarder. He almost totally stopped attending school and was failing by the time I left my job last January.

The hearing also failed to distinguish between high-quality and lower-quality group homes. Credible research shows that smaller, well-run group homes can be more effective than therapeutic foster care in improving outcomes for foster youth with therapeutic needs. Boys Town Family Homes, for example, are run by married couples (“Teaching Parents”) who live full time in the home and care for six to eight boys.

I visited a Boys Town Home in D.C. that was sunlit and immaculate, with a wall covered with photos of former residents. The “Teaching Parents” had raised their own children in the home and their two-year-old was currently basking in the attention of all his “big brothers.”

My experience was in the District of Columbia, where less than nine percent of foster children are in group homes, as compared to 18 percent of foster children nationwide. If the federal government imposes further restrictions on group homes, other states will be in the same position as the District, where children are being placed in inappropriate family settings. We risk ending up like Australia, which eliminated over half of its residential placements, resulting in the migration of many children to the homeless and juvenile justice systems and a foster care crisis due to the loss of foster parents.

This month’s hearing also failed to differentiate between good and bad foster homes, with witnesses insisting that a family is always better than an institution. Senator Grassley said that children need to be in families so that someone will tuck them in at night. He never met “Ms. V,” a long-time foster parent who worked from 3 pm to 11 pm. She certainly was not available for tucking in “Renee,” a 14-year-old who was severely damaged by 10 years in foster care and repeated rejections by foster and potential adoptive parents.

Ms. V was supposedly a “therapeutic” foster parent and received extra training and compensation in exchange for caring for more troubled young people. But most of the “therapeutic” parents with whom I worked were no different from other foster parents. They provided nothing more than room and board, and had no contact with kids’ schools, therapists, or families. Ms. V refused to attend a meeting at school for Renee, who was failing, telling me, “I would if I cared but I don’t care.”

I am not advocating for group homes as a replacement for inadequate foster homes. But some young people need residential care as a short-term intervention. And for foster youth who can be placed with a family, we need to find loving, caring foster parents who can meet their therapeutic needs. This may require increasing compensation and training for foster parents dealing with older and more troubled youth. The Administration has indicated its support for this approach, and I plan to discuss possible program models in a future post.

Marie K. Cohen is a former child welfare caseworker for Washington, D.C. She previously worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Welfare Information Network, the Center for Law and Social Policy and the University of Maryland Welfare Reform Academy.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.


  1. Good article but we need to go deeper in our research. GOOD Foster Families are great but they are not trained or equipped to bring children with the mental health issues we see today into their home. These kids are damaged badly and will damage your biological children physically, mentally, and sexually with the blink of an eye. THEN WE HAVE Ruined 2 FAMILIES!! The kids today have experienced more trauma then we could ever imagine. They are not ready to be put into a normal foster home yet. Group homes cost more but they can provide the daily services and supervision to keep kids safe. I hear people complaining that they would never take in a foster child because the foster kids in America have suffered so many mental health issues that they are afraid for their biological childrens safety. Now we are paying more money to foster parents which could encourage all the perverts to want them in their homes for their own pleasure. At least in a group home their are cameras and other staff accountability. As for the teen…..they want to live in group home with their peers. They feel living with s foster fsmily means they have given up on their family coming together in the future. Let teens make their own choices where they want to live. Post them all on line.!!!!

  2. I think it is time we take an honest look at what is happening to our nations children. I live in Iowa right across the river from Boys Town’s National Campus. I work in public safety and have had to try to navigate my way through the systems in place for the children in our community. I will tell you that Boys Town should become our national model. Too many children are shuffled around between unsafe homes and foster care. We have to make a decision as a nation to invest the money in our at risk children or we will pay for them for their entire lives. Be it through aid or the criminal justice system. Structured group homes with family teachers work. I am guessing if we ask law enforcement their opinion they will tell you that a lot of the time the foster home may be as bad as the place that they took them from. Let alone the fact that once they are placed it is always the goal to return the child to the maternal parent. In my mind there should be a system in place that draws a very clear line in the sand that once crossed these parents give away their rights to the child. At that point all funding to the parent should cease and the child should be placed in a high quality residential care facility. That line in the sand has to be much sooner than where it is today. What starts out as a neglect complaint from a school, turns into a runaway/throwaway complaint and then goes on to a criminal justice problem that usually includes some type of criminal charges up to and including sexual abuse/trafficking. The nation needs to ask itself if it is more effective to pay for the first 18 years of a child’s life or pay the cost of the remainder. These children did not ask to be brought into the situation that they are in. I attended a training recently where the instructor stated ” Children do not run to something, they run from something”. We need to do our part to find our what that something is and then make sure they have the protections and resources to become successful citizens.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I personally would rather have my kids own brought up in a Boys Town family home than in most foster homes. I think many of anti-group home advocates have never seen a foster home or a group home–or are concerned only with saving money!


  3. “We risk ending up like Australia…” Are you aware of the Senate Report Forgotten Australians” (2004) and the current Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse? If you’re not, I suggest you get informed about why Australia got rid of residential care.

    The cause-effect argument that the closure of residential care places in Australia led to “…the migration of many children to the homeless and juvenile justice systems and a foster care crisis due to the loss of foster parents” is a shallow assertion, not evidence-based.

  4. Excellent article – foster homes are not always better for children than group homes. Your examples of our not always great foster homes should help remind everyone that not all foster homes are actually nurturing stable placements. And not all group homes are sterile institutions – Boys Town family homes are much better for many adolescents than moving from one foster home to another. Thanks for helping remind others of the reality that not all foster homes and not all group homes are alike.

  5. Parents are not told their child is being placed into a residential care facility. Social workers make it very clear, at least in Kentucky, that the child is in ‘foster care’ and ‘permanent placement’ is inferred because it is not clarified. ‘Permanent Placement’ is plastered across the website recruiting for CASA Review Board. Scary, since our family narrowly escaped the clutches of CPS, many families do not. They don’t because there are no resources available, locally-not ACLU, ADA, or even legal aid. Pro bono is a mockery and toss parental rights out the door. They are not recognized, honored, or enforced.
    We are not told that our parental rights have not been terminate which is extremely important. That in itself was an empowerment tool. The ‘Prevention Plan’ Form is a mess. In one instance, the social worker added another line after I signed it. Most often, parent’s requests are not included. These ‘Prevention Plans’ are one-sided. Lets remember that an awful lot of trust (and power) are afforded social workers. That trust is misplaced.
    This blog doesn’t address ‘dependency’. That is the new watch word, the new back door, for ripping families apart. I can’t tell you how many parents have not abuse or neglected their children, use drugs or alcohol, and up until their children were ‘legally kidnapped’ by this ‘government sanctioned adoption agency’ were gainfully employeed and a valued member in their community.
    Now, my son did get help. Just in time too. But he needed it at 8 years old! Maybe had an intervention program been available locally (emphasis) a few (special needs) teachers and principals would have been fired. Maybe the psychologist would have afforded time to counsel the child?
    I am in complete support for family theraputic settings. To date, my son was assualted by child-on-child abuses (date not collected) which made the trauma much worse. He had responded to an abnormal situation like anyone of us would. This is why I am adamant about communities using ‘mental illness’ or ‘mental health’ as a scape goat. Children respond to threats differently. They are not ‘mentally ill’ as much as suffering PTSD. Where is the study on children? Veteran’s suffer from it…….what do children do when the battle zone is their school? school bus? neighborhood?
    Stop using parents as a scapegoat too.
    Short-term care intervention is only as good as the intent. Too often good intentions are hijacked. It could ‘fast-track’ children into forced adoption.
    If $$$ can be spent training foster parents, that darn it, spend that money training biological parents!
    I’ve lived long enough to know that the (sandbox) bullies do not disappear. The can be the elephant in the room or a mouse in the corner.

  6. Love this article. Question, where can one find information on high vs low quality group homes and smaller vs. larger group home settings. Information at this time would be greatly appreciated.
    Kindest Regards,

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